Fans at last week’s scrimmage applauded the performance of Eastern Washington’s defensive line.
They were that good, but Ryan Sawyer already knew that.
“Top to bottom, we are extremely talented and extremely deep,” said Sawyer, who compares this group with his 2008 unit that included Buchanan Award winner Greg Peach and all-Big Sky selections Lance Witherspoon and Jason Belford.
“The bar was set by the 2008 team, but this group as a whole is deeper, and has a chance to be as good, if not better.”
That’s despite two holes in the middle left in the middle by the departure of Renard Williams and Charles Moetului. Their replacements, Evan Cook and Andru Pulu, are rising to the task.
“This defensive line can be really good,” said Cook, a 6-foot-3, 280-pound senior from Federal Way, Wash. “We have a lot of talent at a lot of places, so we just have to stay fresh and healthy.”
“We had a great winter,” said Sawyer, starting his fifth year as the Eagles’ defensive line coach. “We have become older as a group. They are starting to understand and own the role of leadership and energy on the field.
“And of being disruptive” – which apparently is Sawyer’s favorite word, but always meant as a compliment.
That’s most important in the passing game, especially in the pass-heavy Big Sky Conference. Sacks are nice, but batted balls are almost as good.
“Quarterbacks are getting rid of the ball more quickly than five or 10 years ago,” Sawyer said. “The whole mentality (on offense) has changed.”
In other words, West Coast offensive concepts are becoming more prevalent, with shorter routes and fewer five- and seven-step drops, because those “put the health of their quarterback at risk.”
Sawyer preaches a style of pass rush that’s physical, not running around the blockers. “We want to push the pocket, teach our players how to rush as a unit and have four guys who can get to the quarterback and still stay in the passing lanes.”
Here’s a look at how the Eagles line up across the defensive line this spring:
Left end: Junior Anthony Larry (6-3, 240), a returning starter, “is probably the most talented,” Sawyer said. “He can run, he’s physical, sometimes working on being consistent.” Larry recently became a father, and “that’s been a positive thing in his life and given him more of a purpose in life,” Sawyer said. Larry had 40 tackles last year.
Sophomore Evan Day (6-3, 245) is expected to be the top backup at both end positions. “He’s my most diverse guy,” Sawyer said, “and we are trying to develop him to become more violent and disruptive.”
Nose tackle: This is a key run-stopping position. Fifth-year senior Evan Cook (6-3, 280), has struggled with injuries the past two years, but has “great natural ability, hands and feet and is extremely savvy,” Sawyer said. Cook played defensive end in 2009-10 and missed the Eagles’ title run with a shoulder injury, then a knee knjury last year.
The Eagles have three strong backups in the interior line, including sophomore Dylan Zylstra (6-4, 225), junior Will Katoa (6-0, 285) and redshirt freshman David Delgado (6-3, 320).
Defensive tackle: This is known as the “3 Technique” position in the Eagles’ terminology because the player lines up in the 3 gap just outside the strong-side guard. This demands a strong pass rusher, which this fall may be junior Andru Pulu (6-2, 290), a transfer from Washington, where he played defensive end. “He’s learning, but he made a huge jump from week one to week two,” Sawyer said.
In last week’s scrimmage, when receiver Greg Herd galloped for 25 yards for a touchdown on an end-around, Pulu crossed the field with him and almost made the tackle. “He’s very coachable and excited for a second opportunity,” Sawyer said. “He’s also very disruptive and strong on tackling on double teams.”
If Pulu is injured, sophomore Zach Chapman (6-3, 240) is pushing to be the backup, though Sawyer said he could instead move Cook to this spot and replace Cook at nose tackle with Zylstra, Katoa or Delgado.
Right end: Senior Paul Ena (6-2, 240) started here all of last season. “He’s always in the right position,” Sawyer said, “plays harder than anyone on the field.” Sawyer praises his run-stopping ability. Ena sees his job as “just keeping the ‘backers clean and making their job easier.”
Speedy senior Jerry Ceja (6-3, 220) is Sawyer’s “change-up guy” on third down. Sawyer said Ceja led the team last year in sacks per snap.